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This was my third and final dispatch from the climate conference. It follows up on a piece written the day before for TNR. A colleague forwarded along evidence that supported my central thesis: businesses have mixed motives about climate change and, as such, should be kept a safe distance from the climate negotiations. Unfortunately, that distance is being increasingly diminished.


CANCUN, Mexico — Most observers agree that the Cancun deal is a tremendous achievement for UN climate process and a testament to the dogged diplomacy of the tireless Mexican hosts. After reaching what was a seemingly impassable divide over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators worked into the early hours this morning to produce two compromise texts that were agreed upon by all but the Bolivian delegation.

All that has been widely reported. What has been less discussed in the growing influence of large multinational corporations over the UN climate process. This is, as I wrote yesterday for The New Republic, “cause for concern.” Because businesses are quarterly-driven entities beholden primarily to their investors – not the long-term public interest – it isdangerous to allow them a prominent role in the climate negotiations. This risk was made evident by a letter Greenpeace uncovered shortly after the story was published.

While the government of Mexico worked hard to include corporations in the climate protection discussion that occurred here over the past two weeks, some big businesses used the platform they provided to push their narrow self interests. Shell was a particularly dishonest actor. On Wednesday its executive vice-president Graeme Sweeney joined Mexican Secretary of Economy Bruno Ferrari at a panel sponsored by the national development agency to discuss the role the private sector can play in preventing catastrophic climate change.

“Sweeney used every opportunity to emphasize the importance of funding R&D for carbon capture and sequestration—a promising but completely unproven technology to reduce emissions from coal plants,” I wrote of the event. “While Shell’s commitment to climate action is nice, it also seems to be a glorified form of lobbying.”

But, as I learned later, pushing for dubious solutions to the climate crisis wasn’t the only thing the oil company was doing to undermine the negotiations. Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: Lee Jordan (via Flickr)

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This piece, my first to lead TNR.com, was given three different titles by the editors there — none of which I particularly liked. They were: In Cancún, Corporations Are Taking Over The U.N. Climate Talks; Corporations Fight The U.N. Climate Talks In Cancún; and on the front page, Can Wal-Mart Stop Global Warming? The title above is probably the best representation of the post below.

One historical note: I hopped a plane to Mexico without a plan or press passes because an editor from the Guardian newspaper contacted me about doing some guest blogging for them. He rejected a pitch for this story due to the timing and another pitch about Evo Morales because his corespondent was already planning a piece on the Bolivian president. Although I was disappointed to not make onto the Guardian’s site, leading TNR.com is a new accomplishment (and one that paid me nearly as much). Pretty good for flying south on a hope and a prayer, I think.

Cancún, Mexico—Another year, another round of U.N. climate talks. This year’s discussions in Cancún are likely to end much as last year’s haggling in Copenhagen did—without a firm global treaty to stop drastic climate change. But the stalemate has led to an intriguing side development: Large, multinational corporations are starting to play an outsized role in the negotiations. If world leaders can’t agree on how best to cut carbon emissions (and, so far, it’s not clear they can), then the world’s CEOs may start taking the lead. But is that really a positive development?

Consider some examples: On the very first day of the Cancún talks, the Consumer Goods Forum, a coalition of more than 400 of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers, pledged to use its market might to help stop deforestation by 2020. The forum also pledged to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons—refrigeration gases that are thousands of times more potent than CO2—by 2015. This week, Wal-Mart came out in support of a major global forest-preservation initiative, REDD, and has announced plans to expand its sustainable palm oil policy.

Mexican Secretary of the Economy Bruno Ferrari

To top it all off, the Mexican government announced that it had secured $55 million in private low-carbon investments since the beginning of the talk—all this while wealthy nations struggle to come up with funds to finance carbon reductions in the developing world.

It’s clear that private companies are stepping in to do what the public sector hasn’t been able to do—take concrete steps and shell out money to reduce greenhouse gases. Indeed, many officials are starting to treat these firms as major actors akin to governments. “I’m sure in the future [the Cancun conference] is going to be remembered as the moment when you have an additional part of the COP that is related with business,” predicted Bruno Ferrari, Mexico’s secretary of the economy. Last week, hundreds of businesses leaders staged their own climate summit. The message seemed clear: NGOs and non-profits haven’t been able to fix the climate problem, so let’s see if the private sector can.

Can they? It’s clear that private companies can act much more nimbly than governments. The measures taken by the Consumer Goods Forum and Wal-Mart will start taking have real effects on global greenhouse gases immediately, whereas a formal climate treaty won’t materialize until at least next year in Durban, South Africa—if that.

But there’s also cause for concern. Click here to read the rest of this post on The Vine.

 

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This short, colorful dispatch — my first filed from Mexico — is copied in full below along with a photo I took from the plane that illustrates Cancun’s challenge. Click here to see the original UN Dispatch posting.

Cancun's hotel strip

CANCUN, Mexico — Yesterday, top diplomats from around the world flew into Cancun to make a final push for progress on in waning days of the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). What they saw as their planes prepared to land at Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancún may help sharpen their resolve and encourage countries to make a deal.

Cancun is not only picturesque, it is also at tremendous risk if climate change continues unabated. The resorts hang down from the central city like a string of pearls dangling in the teal waters of the Atlantic. Separating the city from the resorts is Laguna Nichupté. Much of the area around Cancun is also filled with the same mangrove thickets that line the shores of the lagoon.

Rising, acidifying oceans and stronger storms could ruin all that beauty. The shiny, aquamarine waters off its coast would become tarnished if the coral providing their beautiful hue is bleached by ocean acidification. Without these coral reefs, its world famous hotels would also be at risk. A sea level rise of only a few inches, coupled with the loss of protective coral and more vicious storms, could devastate Cancun’s fragile coastline.

There’s already evidence of climate change’s impact on the city. The sandy beach in front of many of the hotels are receding due to increasingly stronger storm surges. The biggest of all came with Hurricane Wilma, which battered the city in 2005. It cost Mexico $7.5 billion and it was only a category three storm.

Now on the ground, ensconced in the luxurious Moon Palace hotel, diplomats would do well to remember the view from the air. If the COP 16 talks in Cancun fail, it may spell not only the end of the UNFCCC process, but also perhaps the city itself.

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This, my first post on COP16, is also probably the first hopeful piece I’ve written about the climate negotiations. The next two weeks will tell if that optimism is well founded.

US Envoy Jonathan Pershing is looking to work with the Chinese

Yesterday some 15,000 delegates, business leaders, activists and journalists gathered in Cancun to kick off the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16). And already the UNFCCC has some good news to report: 400 major companies including Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever and Walmart have promised to not use hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used as a refrigerant, in new equipment after 2015. Although this is only a small first step, it is significant. Phasing out HFCs would provide 8 percent of the GHG reductions needed by midcentury to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

This is a promising opening to COP 16, especially in light of recent history. International negotiators have struggled to make progress in protecting the climate since the disappointing conclusion of the Copenhagen conference. Yet, as the progress on HFC reductions indicate, there are a few good reasons to hope that this year’s summit may produce a more tangible, positive outcome than the last.

Mexican leadership

COP 16 will benefit from the strong leadership of a developing country that is committed and engaged in the battle against climate change. In the run up to the conference, Mexican diplomats have been shuttling around the globe in search of issues where detailed progress can be made in Cancun. These efforts helped the UNFCCC craft a plan for the conference focused on securing agreement in financing for adaptation, sharing information on agriculture and technology, and setting rules for the reduced deforestation program, commonly referred to as REDD+.

Only weeks ago, it seemed likely that little more than an agreement on REDD+ was possible in Cancun. Now President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, who Washington Post’s William Booth refers to as “a climate wonk,” has announced that he will advocate for a “third way” in the climate negotiations. His developing country will make, as Booth describes it, “commitments to serious, verifiable reductions in greenhouse gases in exchange for billions in aid and technology transfers from big polluters such as the United States and European Union.” This could effectively defuse the superpower standoff between the US, which has demanded better monitoring of developing country commitments, and China, which wants more money, technology and emission reductions from rich nations.

“We would like to prove that a developing country can mitigate and adapt to climate change without hurting the economy,” Fernando Tudela, Calderon’s deputy secretary of planning and environmental policy explained. “We want to prove that in Mexico.”

The China challenge

Another encouraging trend is the reported increase in China’s climate cooperation. Meetings of the countries’ negotiators over the past months seem to have reduced the tensions between China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, and the US, which is the world’s richest nation and second biggest carbon polluter. “My sense is we have made progress,” said Jonathan Pershing, the leader of the US delegation in Cancun.

Statements by his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua about the country’s new-found support for international emissions monitoring suggest Pershing may be right.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece or to make a comment at the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: US Department of State (via Flickr)

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While the embattled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been the leading climate-related news the past couple weeks, of more importance to the international negotiations were two meetings at opposite ends of the globe. A week ago Saturday, China and Japan held a one-day ministerial level meeting in Beijing to discuss economic matters, among them their approaches to climate change. Then at the end of last week, experts and environmental ministers from some 45 nations concluded a two-day meeting in Geneva on climate finance, a contentious issue that developing nations consider instrumental for crafting a binding international climate agreement.

Even though the climate summit in Cancun is unlikely to produce a treaty, internationalists hope these side meetings–and the final formal talks in Tianjin, China scheduled for November–will produce the understanding needed to move closer to an international agreement in Mexico at the end of the year. Will the recent gatherings in China and Switzerland foster the teamwork necessary to construct a consensus approach to combating climate change? It is too soon to judge the outcome of the financial talks (more on those later), but the news from China suggests that it is sticking to its unilateral game plan.

The Japanese connection

Although China and Japan are deeply connected trading partners, the Asian giants sit on opposite sides of the climate debate. While China is the world’s undisputed king of carbon emissions and an emerging superpower, it is also a poor, developing nation eager to protect the right to continue its fossil-fueled growth. Rich Japan’s smaller economy may now produce fewer greenhouse gases than China’s, but the Japanese–like the Americans and Europeans and the rest of the rich world–bear a greater historic responsibility for the current level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.

In spite of their differences, the two countries have a history of climate cooperation. During a state visit to Tokyo in May 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda signed a Joint Statement on Climate Change. The document, which the recent Beijing meetings reaffirmed, essentially endorses the Chinese negotiation position at last year’s Copenhagen summit with a few Japanese caveats and clarifications.

In its most sweeping and controversial section, the agreement says that “the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] and its Kyoto Protocol are the appropriate and effective framework for international cooperation to address climate change.” It then goes on to enshrine “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.” These innocuous sounding sentences have emerged as two of the biggest points of contention between rich and poor countries since the disappointing outcome in Copenhagen.

Another venue

First, some countries have begun to question whether the UN is even the right venue for addressing climate change…

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch blog post on the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: Edú (via Flickr)

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Add another line to the resume: I’ve been accepted as a Huffington Post blogger. This green piece, originally written for UN Dispatch, is my first to be republished there. I have now joined hundreds of unpaid journalists, PR flacks, politicians, and celebrities who are all pushing our particular message on Arianna’s tremendously popular web platform. I’m not sure how often I’ll blog for HuffPo, but it’s a nice to now know that I can.

Clouds gather over Cancun

While everyone else is downplaying expectations for the year-end Cancun climate summit, Mexican negotiators still believe there can be a “spectacular breakthrough.” After the failure of the recent Bonn climate talks to achieve any substantial progress, one has to wonder how Mexico is defining success in Cancun? And more importantly, how does it aim to facilitate that outcome?

Mexico has stopped short of pushing for comprehensive treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Reluctantly acknowledging political reality after Bonn, Mexico’s chief delegate Fernando Tudela told Reuters earlier this week that “we will not be able to negotiate a new treaty in Cancun, that much is clear.” What they hope to come of their high profile summit is less clear.

Mexico’s conflicting messages

Before the Bonn talks devolved into what one EU delegate referred to as “tit-for-tat” diplomacy, Mexico’s Special Representative for Climate Change Luis Alfonso de Alba had suggested the Cancun summit could result in three new treaties: “We are not just talking about one single legally binding instrument but a set of them.” As De Alba explained it to Nina Chestney of Reuters, one treaty could cover Annex I, developed country signatories to the Kyoto Protocol; another, developing countries; and a third treaty could be drafted in an attempt to codify the promised reductions made in Copenhagen by the US–the world’s richest unrepentant emitter of greenhouse gas.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa is suggesting something entirely different: simply extend the Kyoto Protocol. Espinosa told The Hindu newspaper that “the existing legal framework is a good basis” for addressing climate change. “There is no need for a new treaty,” she said.

Under the Kyoto regime, developing countries–even large ones like China and India–are exempted from committing to carbon emissions reductions. As developing countries have come to produce an increasing share of greenhouse gases since 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was initially adopted, that provision has become one of the biggest obstacles preventing American support for international climate agreements.

Espinosa’s proposal also faces logistical hurdles. The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, but it most experts predict it would take years to authorize a second period leaving a regulatory gap between when Kyoto expires and comes back into force. Some worry that focusing on reauthorizing a contentious treaty will simply distract diplomats from the hard negotiating necessary to draft a more agreeable updated treaty (or treaties, as De Alba would have it).

Betting on developing nations

Mexico is acutely aware that climate negotiators are running short on time to shape a post-Kyoto legal structure. “We have a window of opportunity that is closing,” said Mexico’s chief Bonn delegate Tudela. “What we want to do is rescue these negotiations.”

Since the conclusion of the Bonn talks, Mexican diplomats have been racing around the globe trying to do just that. Last week De Alba traveled to Stockholm and announced Mexico’s intentions to reach out to developing nations “that felt their views were not significantly taken into account” in Copenhagen. This week Foreign Minister Espinosa was in India, one of those emerging countries hurt by the last minute diplomatic push that produced the Copenhagen Accord. In New Delhi, she met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to deliver the message that, “an ambitious outcome [in Cancun] requires India’s sustained political guidance and support.”

Mexico’s efforts to keep developing nations happy may end up pleasing no one.

Click here to continue reading, like, or comment on this UN Dispatch piece republished by the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: paalia (via Flickr)

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This is my first blog post for the climate channel of UN Dispatch, an internationalist site funded by the UN Foundation. I hope to write a post per week for them to keep up with the climate beat.

Reports suggest that international climate negotiators meeting this week in Bonn, Germany are not focused on setting the stage for a binding climate treaty to be signed at the year-end conference in Cancun, Mexico. Instead delegates are trying to achieving what UN chief negotiator Christiana Figueres is calling the “politically possible.” What does that mean for the future of climate protection measure around the globe?

Internationalists holding out hope that the Cancun climate summit will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol are likely to be disappointed. After the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change failed to produce an international climate treaty in Copenhagen, its executive director Yvo de Boer stepped down, leaving leadership of the organization to Figueres. She appears to have scaled back the UNFCCC’s ambitions. Alex Morales of Bloomberg reports that she told delegates in Bonn it may be unnecessary to complete a full agreement in Cancun. “Decisions need to be taken, perhaps in an incremental manner,” Figueres said.

In spite of the recent failures of Australia and America to move forward with cap-and-trade emissions schemes, a handful of regions and countries have quietly taken the sort of incremental steps the new UN climate chief is advocating.

Click here to read the rest of the post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: OneEighteen (via Flickr)

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I lived on the same dormitory floor as Selena during my freshman year of college. Although we didn’t see each other as much as we did when we lived on either side of the floor’s co-ed bathroom, we remained friendly enough during the next three years that Selena made a point of adding me to an email list she wrote to during the year she spent after graduation literally clowning around. With periodic intermissions, she has kept clowning–and emailing me–ever since. After her most recent adventures, I asked my editor if I could interview her for MIL. The  product of our two-hour-long conversation is below.

Selena McMahan’s life as an international clown began when she won the liberal-arts equivalent of an internship at Goldman Sachs: the Watson Fellowship, a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant to travel the world for a year pursuing, well, whatever. Soon after graduating from Bowdoin College in the summer of 2005, McMahan used her award to tour nine countries on four continents—putting on clown shows at every stop. (The Watson may offer little in terms of future earning power, but every year it gives some 40 students from America’s elite small colleges a lifetime’s worth of stories.)

Her Watson year marked the beginning of what has become a one-woman circus. Upon returning to New York City, where McMahan had lived before college, she began volunteering with the American chapter of Clowns Without Borders (CWB). McMahan’s first trip with the organisation was to the FEMA trailer parks of hurricane-devastated New Orleans in 2007. Most recently, she took her clown show on tour in Ethiopia. Shortly after returning from CWB’s annual meeting of international chapters in Berlin, McMahan spoke with More Intelligent Life from her apartment in France, where she first studied the art of the clown and where she lives now. We discussed the perception and politics of clowning around the world.

More Intelligent Life: Is there a difference between the way clowns are viewed in America and Europe?

Selena McMahan: Clowning is something that is more respected in European theatre traditionally. In the States, it’s starting to change now. It didn’t used to be that way in the States. If you look at Charlie Chaplin, “I Love Lucy”—there’s been huge clowns in the US. But recently clowning has become more circus clown and birthday clown—something not very valued or artistic. In Europe that hasn’t happened, or not to the same extent.

MIL: You recently completed a two-year diploma programme in physical theatre. I get the sense that you do not have a very high opinion of the amateur clowns one might find at a children’s birthday party.

SM: Right. In America a lot of what’s happened with birthday clowning is really big make-up that’s designed to be seen in a circus tent of 7,000 people or more. People started dressing up like clowns in a circus, but in a birthday party in someone’s living room. A circus clown in a living room is scary. The make-up is not meant for that environment. I think that’s why a lot of people are afraid of clowns and we have a bad reputation now. It’s about finding a costume that goes with the clown suitable for that environment.

MIL: Like the blog that grew out of it, your Watson Fellowship project was called the Contemporary Clown Circuit. Can you explain what that phrase means?

SM: It felt to me that in this day and age the interesting place for clowns is in a real-life setting. It’s not in the theatre. It’s not on movies and TV. It’s in the world. The role of the clown is to be the person who can question the authority, who can question the status quo. That’s childlike but at the same time is extremely wise. By this balance of being extremely naïve and wise but with a different kind of logic, clowns have permission to do things that other people never could. A typical example is that a court jester can make fun of the king.

MIL: Can you give a contemporary example of clowns questioning authority or satirising political power?

Click here to leave a comment and read Selena’s answer about staging shows in the military state of Myanmar, clowns in government, and being an artist in Europe.

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